Only an Octave Apart taken at Wilton's on the 29th September 2022, London

Only An Octave Apart

Reviewer's Rating

Fresh from his success in ‘Handel/Glass’, counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo joins pipes with cabaret star Justin Vivian Bond for a repeat of their recent New York collaboration. Taking their cue from Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills, whose original opening number they adapt to inaugurate the show, they set out the vocal contours of the evening with the title song, ‘Only an Octave Apart’, before launching into a sequence of alternating solo spots connected with sections of sassy banter and then spreading into various joint mash-up numbers.

The first point to emphasise is the professionalism of all aspects of the production. The running time is 90 minutes with no interval, but it slides past effortlessly and without any flat patches. Bond states his mantra to be ‘Keep it pretty, shallow, and moving’, and this summary mostly holds. There is pace, variety, deft arrangements played by a luxury ensemble, skilful lighting and a veritable parade of exotic frocks and inventive accessories introduced with a swish of many a curtain and gauzy veil. But shallow it is not, because of the presence of some really great pieces of music, and also because every effect here is so carefully calibrated and calculated.

The high points of the evening come, however, when they keep it relatively simple and don’t try too hard. A suitably well-lit version of ‘Me and My Shadow’ established the ground rules of their dynamic, before an exquisite rendition of ‘Autumn Leaves’ with Costanzo singing in French and Bond in English as flaming maple leaves flutter down behind various misty scrims. A particularly charming, wry touch comes near the end as Sternberg’s ‘Like an Egyptian’ is paired with music from Philip Glass’s Akhenaten, with which Costanzo is so closely associated.
The solo items assigned to Costanzo contain some unusual but rewarding choices – an uncharacteristically plain Liszt setting of a poem by Goethe, an aria from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, and an impressive rendition of ‘Deh placatevi con me’ from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice. This is the aria in which Orfeo tries to gain admittance to Hades only to be repelled by the Furies, here represented by comically camp cries of ‘No’ from Bond. Most impressive of all was the more familiar Act Three duet for Count and Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro in which Costanzo managed to slide through the vocal gears to sing both baritone and soprano parts, ending up in a breathless, if triumphant heap on the stage.

There were some fine moments for Bond too, of a more plangent and rueful kind, before the later sections of the evening fused into a series of medleys, some more successful than others. Pairing Dido’s Lament with Dido’s ‘White Flag’, made little sense beyond a play on names, but a grouping in which ‘If You Were the Only {we say NORMAL} Girl in the World’ was followed by role reversal singing of Bizet (by Bond) and Neil Diamond (by Costanzo) made the most powerful point of the evening – for breaking down artificial barriers in both musical genres and categories of performance excellence.

Director Zack Winokur ensured there was a good flow of movement around the stage, with plenty of visual interest and suggestions of sets, when needed; John Torres gave us a lighting design much more detailed than is usual at Wilton’s; and Thomas Bartlett offered expert musical leadership of a band, whose skills, despite the canny arrangements by Nico Muhly, remained somewhat underused.

All in all, this show offers an engrossing residency through most of October and should be on the to-do list of any serious opera or cabaret enthusiast.